Did you know that your digestive system contains your body’s ‘second brain?’
This second brain in the gut is the reason you get butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous. Interestingly, your gut controls your digestive functions through the same nerve cells and chemical messengers that your brain uses.
Keep reading to learn more about the gut-brain connection and how it impacts your health.
What Is the Brain in the Gut?
The brain in the gut is known as the enteric nervous system (ENS). It’s part of the autonomic nervous system and consists of more than 100 million nerve cells that line the gastrointestinal tract. The ENS runs from the upper esophagus to the internal anal sphincter.
The ENS controls digestion through sensory and motor nerve cells. It normally communicates with the brain but can also function independently of the central nervous system (CNS). This is why it gets the name ‘second brain.’
The ENS stimulates bowel motility and gastrointestinal blood flow. It also regulates digestive enzymes, hormones, and nutrient absorption.
Understanding the Gut-Brain Connection
The gut-brain connection is a complex pathway of communication that involves the gut microbiome, ENS, vagus nerve, and immune system.
These connections send information about the gut to the CNS. But the CNS also relays information to the digestive system. For example, the sight and smell of appetizing food stimulate the stomach to secrete acid.
The vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve, provides the fastest connection between the gut and brain. It sends signals to the brain through sensory input from the gut, such as intestinal stretch, hormones, and neurotransmitters. For instance, a stretched intestine tells your brain that you have received enough nutrients and can stop eating.
The immune system also influences the gut-brain connection because the greatest concentration of immune cells resides in your gastrointestinal tract. Immune cells constantly communicate with the brain and update your health status. Inflammation in the gut and increased intestinal permeability can increase the risk of brain disorders. Similarly, changes in the brain can contribute to the development of digestive conditions.
How Is the Gut Microbiome Related to Mental Health?
Your gut health is closely related to your mental health. And your gut microbiome plays an important role.
The majority of microorganisms in the human body live in the gut. This is your gut microbiome. The gut microbiome contains a diverse community of yeast, archaea, parasites, and bacteria.
The bacteria in the gut control a variety of bodily functions, including:
- Brain function
- Immune response
- Vitamin synthesis
Your gut maintains a balance of beneficial and harmful microorganisms to keep your body healthy and functioning properly. But if your gut microbiome becomes imbalanced, it can negatively affect the gut and brain. A gut microbiome with low diversity can increase the risk of autism, anxiety, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Boost Your Mental Health Through Your Gut Microbiome
Making dietary choices that improve your gut health can also improve your mental health. We’ll highlight some dietary strategies below that you can use to give your health a boost.
While a low carbohydrate diet isn’t for everyone, it can yield protective benefits for your brain and gut. A low-carb, high-fat diet like the ketogenic diet causes your body to use fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates. This results in the production of ketone bodies.
Research shows that a ketogenic diet affects the gut microbiome differently than a high-fat diet alone. The production of ketone bodies reduces the growth of inflammatory bacteria in the gut microbiome.
Remarkably, a ketogenic diet may improve symptoms of autism, depression, epilepsy, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
A low-FODMAP diet is a diet that limits the consumption of easily fermentable carbohydrates. This diet restricts certain carbohydrates that trigger gastrointestinal symptoms and allows you to eat carbohydrates that don’t bother you.
High FODMAP foods can worsen cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea for people with IBS.
Research shows that a low-FODMAP diet can improve long-term quality of life, gastrointestinal symptoms, fatigue, anxiety, and depression in people with IBS.
High-FODMAP carbs to avoid on this diet include:
- Fruits such as apples, mangos, pears, watermelon, figs, cherries, and avocados
- Dairy products such as milk,